Pyramid Power

We have just received the 2015s from Pyramid Valley. This is the last vintage released with Mike and Claudia Weersing at the helm. The estate has been purchased by a foreign investor and will be run by Aotearoa NZ Fine Wine Estates.

Pyramid Valley Vineyards was founded in 2000 by Mike and Claudia Weersing in Waikiri, north Canterbury. They planted around 2ha, comprising about 1.3 of Pinot Noir, and 0.7 of Chardonnay. Mike had studied oenology and viticulture in Burgundy, beginning at the Lycée Viticole in Beaune, and continuing at the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon. He worked extensively in the vineyards and cellars of Europe, for producers such as Hubert de Montille, Domaine de la Pousse d'Or, and Nicolas Potel in Burgundy; Jean-Michel Deiss and Marc Kreydenweiss in Alsace; and Ernst Loosen in the Mosel. He has made wine in France and in Spain, for Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards, as well as vinifying in the Rhone Valley, the Languedoc-Roussillon, and Navarra. New world vintages include apprenticeships with James Halliday at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley, and with Russ Raney at Evesham Wood in Oregon's Eola-Amity Hills.

Claudia was a fashion designer and skilled clothes maker. Whilst Mike looked after the vinification she brought her “two green thumbs, and a dazzling smile to the management of our home vineyards”. Invariably to be found in the vines Claudia was (and is) a committed biodynamicist. The home vineyard was established according to rules that Mike grew to respect and inherently to trust during his time studying and working in Burgundy: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were planted, on clay-limestone soils on scarp slopes, at a density of 10,000-12,000 vines per hectare.

The whole farm comprises 200 acres of beautiful countryside in the Pyramid Valley. Through the creation of wetlands and extensive native plantings, animals, birds and wildlife flock to this part of the valley to make it their home. I love this about home. “The majority of our animals and wildlife have just found their way here. Whether its Alfrado our Jersey cow who just turned up one day to our ducks, dogs and numerous birds that have done the same. All are welcome in the haven of Pyramid Valley.”

Mike and Claudia developed four vineyards over the last fifteen years, two of Pinot Noir, two of Chardonnay. Their unusual shapes and differing sizes have been determined by describing, and then adhering to, discrete areas of homogenous soil and aspect. Each block is vinified and bottled separately, as an expression of its specific place.

The vineyard names are derived from common names of predominant weed species in each block. As soil conditions change, the weed mix responds accordingly. These vineyards have been cultivated biodynamically from inception. They comprise: Earth Smoke Pinot Noir: for fumitory (from the Latin fumus terrae), a gentle and tender weed, with a beautiful magenta flower. Its wispy gray-green foliage, rising from newly cultivated ground, does indeed resemble smoke, especially in the half-light of dawn. Angel Flower Pinot Noir: for yarrow, a lovely grassland and pasture plant with very fine, fennel-like leaves, and a brilliant, composite mass of delicate white flowers. Yarrow is the basis of biodynamic preparation 502, and has a strong association with heat and light.

Lion’s Tooth Chardonnay: for the common dandelion (from the French dent de lion), whose serrated leaves resemble feline teeth. Dandelion is a spectacularly well-balanced plant, and is enormously useful: its early leaves are delicious in salads, its root can be used to make a tonic coffee-like drink, and its flowers engender both wine, and biodynamic preparation 506.

Field of Fire Chardonnay: for the much-maligned grass, commonly called twitch or quack (Latin Agropyron repens), a crafty plant with creeping rhizomes, nemesis to many a home gardener. Twitch usefully shatters the somewhat dense clays at the surface of this small block, while not competing at limey depth with our vine roots.
Our home vineyards allow imagination and conviction to be set free. Whatever means, methods, mentality we believe should produce a truer, more transparent and authentic wine, we invoke here. Our plant density is the highest in New Zealand, our yields austere, and the vineyard environment – embracing soils and plants and animals and insects and above all, people – is lavished with care.

Wine to us is a genie, genius loci; our task is to coax it from its stone bottle. Wine’s magical capacity for evoking site, we consider an obligation, as much as a gift. Every gesture we make, in the vineyard and winery, is a summons to the spirit of place. Biodynamics, hand-based viticulture, natural winemaking – these are all means we’ve adopted better to record and to transmit, with the greatest possible fidelity, this spirit’s song.

In keeping with the tradition of growing all of the fruit using organic and biodynamic practices, the winery itself was constructed with energy conservation in mind. There are no pumps as everything is gravity-fed, no filtering devices the must settles naturally, and no heating or cooling systems. Each tank is treated according to its needs and temperature “control” is effected by means of opening or closing doors, wrapping or unwrapping vessels, covering or uncovering ferments. Nothing is pushed - the reason for this is that Pyramid Valley ferment using only wild, vineyard-sourced yeasts, “which really hate to be shoved around, and will sulk.”

We follow a similar approach here. We would never inoculate with commercial bacteria to encourage malo. At the same time, we don’t use sulphur, refrigeration, sterile filtration, to inhibit malo. Some wines always finish, some rarely begin, and some change from season to season. Again, this we leave to the wisdom of biodynamic grapes and healthy natural microbiology.

At Pyramid the whites are whole-bunch pressed, as opposed to crushing and/or de-stemming the fruit before it goes into the press. The fruit is hand-picked (never machine harvested) into small 5kg bins, then tipped into the press. By not damaging the fruit before it’s pressed, the juice is finer with more elegant phenolics.

Mike says of the fermentation process: “A great hero and mentor of mine, Edmond Vatan, once replied when I asked him about malo in his Chavignol: “Ah, bouf, le malo, si ca se fait, ca se fait.”  (If it happens, then it happens).  “We follow a similar approach here. We would never inoculate with commercial bacteria to encourage malo. At the same time, we don’t use sulphur, refrigeration, sterile filtration, to inhibit malo. Some wines always finish, some rarely begin, and some change from season to season. Again, this we leave to the wisdom of biodynamic grapes and healthy natural microbiology”.

The Home Pinot Noirs are hand-sorted and hand destemmed. This ensures that fully intact berries are retained and ensures that only the best quality grapes go into the vessel. As Mike says: “Hand sorting is the ultimate interface of what happens in the vineyard and what enters the winery and finally enters the bottle. If this sorting process takes two weeks then so be it. This is a process that our friends, sommeliers, distribution partners, interns, international winemakers assist us with each year.” 

The fruit is treated gently. The winery is seen as a space where the fruit makes the gentle transition to wine. It is never pushed in a direction it doesn’t want to go or be and is always left to be ready when it feels ready. As mentioned the wines are unfined and unfiltered where ever possible, with little to no additives. If sulphur is used it is only the minimum amount required pre-bottling. The wines are aged in clay amphorae and used barrels (puncheons). The intention is to produce transparent wines showing the particularities of site, soil and season. 

The 2015 vintage produced the most beautiful fruit with perfect flowering, wonderful summer weather conditions allowing for full production off the tiny 2.2- hectare vineyards. Warmer vintages allowed for the vines to move further into the soils seeking water, penetrating deep into the limestone at a length of over five metres deep. Over the year the wines have moved into a new dimension of flavour and tension due to the unique contribution of the limestone soils. The wines have years of cellaring potential, are showing their terroir at a vine age of fifteen years very different to the earlier years of Pyramid Valley.

And so to the wines. Field of Fire Chardonnay has a glorious nose of baked peach, pastry, and yellow flowers – acacia and fennel blossom. Also, a comfortable note of warm cornbread. Lush on entry, but quickly turns streamlined, from stony acidity and girdling phenolics: great volume and energy, condensing and accelerating on the palate. 

Lion’s Tooth Chardonnay has flavours of yellow peach, ground almonds, and lemon curd. Very fluid, very long. An intense kind of inwardness, the wine folding in upon itself, condensing to an astonishing saline core. Enormous force and length, with alternating assertions of golden flavour – ripe pear, toast, flower honey, nuts – and chalk-hard structure.

Angel Flower Pinot Noir presents a very pale ruby, slightly turbid colour and a good intensity of funky, wild strawberry and soy aromas with nuances of dried herbs and cloves. The medium bodied palate is very elegant with exquisitely soft tannins, medium to high acid and a medium-long finish. 

The beguiling Earth Smoke Pinot Noir is very fine with beautiful aromas of red berries, minerals and red earth.  Finesse and elegance abounds on the palate, yet there is a wonderful richness and fullness despite the elegance, harmoniously filling the mouth.

The difference between one Chardonnay and the other, and one Pinot and the other, is marked, despite the fact that these tiny vineyards are so close to each other. Which says so much about the personality of the vineyards (and their aspects) and the respective limestone content in the soils. 

Mike and Claudia have made some of the most beautiful wines to come out of New Zealand. The terroir of Pyramid Valley is exceptional, as is the attention to detail, the no-compromise approach and the desire to capture the spirit of place in living liquid.

Imagery copyright of Pyramid Valley.

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